Monday Night Football Preview: Oh, Defense, Where Art Thou?
Sometimes, the best games of backyard football were the ones that meant absolutely nothing. When you didn't have to worry about Uncle Jon getting up in your grill after an 11-yard slant, you could have some fun just slanging it around the lot. That's what could be in store Monday night.
Neither the New Orleans Saints nor the Detroit Lions have realistic playoff aspirations, the over/under is chilling at 51.5, and both teams have sub-par defenses. It's the perfect recipe for an entertaining affair if you love yourself some points.
Let's take a deeper look at this game using numberFire's game projections page, which is available for every NFL game each week throughout the season for premium subscribers. It includes full projections for both teams, a look at how the game should play out relative to Vegas's lines, and a list of similar games from past NFL seasons that can give us a better idea of what to expect.
We'll also be using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players with the team totals being adjusted based on strength of opponent.
If you're new to the site, here's how NEP works. Prior to each play, there is an expected number of points that the offense will score on their current drive. A positive play (such as a three-yard rush on 3rd and 2) will increase that, resulting in positive NEP. A negative play (such as a three-yard rush on 3rd and 4) will decrease that, resulting in negative NEP. These fluctuations in expected points over the course of the season are NEP.
Even though this game may not mean a lot for the playoffs, there are still some intriguing questions to be answered. Let's take a look at four of them using the tools above so we can see if this game will be as fun as it's shaping up to be.
Is Drew Brees Still an Elite Quarterback?
The Saints' offense seems to go as Drew Brees goes. At times this year, that hasn't been a good thing. Can we still place Brees in the top tier of the NFL's signal-callers?
Although Brees hasn't quite been his usual self, he certainly hasn't been bad, either. He entered Week 15 ranked eighth in Passing NEP per drop back of the 40 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs. This isn't enough to keep that elite tag, but it's also likely not as bad as the public's perception.
Brees looks better when we narrow things down to just when the Saints are at home, as they are on Monday. There, Brees has racked up 96.29 Passing NEP on 249 drop backs, equating to 0.37 Passing NEP per drop back. The best mark in the league overall this year is Andy Dalton at 0.35, so, yeah, I'd say Brees is a'ight in the Superdome.
He's in a good spot for Monday night, too, facing a Lions defense that ranks 29th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. They've certainly improved of late, but that has been against such prolific quarterbacks as Mark Sanchez and Case Keenum. Brees might present a bit of a tougher challenge.
Because of these factors, our projections foresee a nice night out of Brees. He's slotted for 286 yards on 37 attempts (7.73 yards per attempt) with 2.21 touchdowns and 0.76 interceptions. Brees may not be the star he used to be, but he can still post solid numbers in the right situation, and that appears to be the case in this one.
Can the Saints Slow the Lions' Offense?
Like Brees, the Lions' offense has taken a step back this season. That's nothing a date with the Saints' secondary can't cure.
Entering Week 15, the Saints' Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play was 0.33. That was -- clearly -- the worst mark in the league.
That's not the headline. The headline, rather, is the distance by which they have the lead, as the Miami Dolphins are second at just 0.24. The distance from the Saints to the Dolphins is the same as it is from the Dolphins to the 20th-ranked Cleveland Browns. That is some other-worldly suckitude.
This could be an issue, given how much Detroit's passing game has improved. Entering their bye, Matthew Stafford had -8.18 Passing NEP on 321 drop backs, good for -0.03 Passing NEP per drop back. In the five games since, he has 31.97 Passing NEP and 0.16 Passing NEP per drop back. It has been a night-and-day difference, and that appears more than enough to take advantage of the Saints' pass defense.
The big question here is which asset will do the damage for the Lions. Even though the Saints have struggled so mightily against the pass, they've only allowed two receivers to top 100 yards. They have allowed four multi-touchdown games to wide receivers, but they haven't been the worst team in the league at slowing them down.
Tight end is a wildly different story. They've allowed 10 touchdowns to tight ends, and three of them have recorded at least 95 receiving yards. However, Brandon Pettigrew is out for the season, and Stafford has only targeted Eric Ebron 12 times over the past four games. Who gets the job done this time?
numberFire's projections are most bullish on Johnson and Golden Tate. Johnson's slotted at 6 receptions for 85 yards and 0.66 touchdowns, while Tate is projected to haul in 5 receptions for 61 yards and 0.34 touchdowns. Ebron is expected to benefit from Pettigrew's absence with 4 receptions for 41 yards and 0.42 touchdowns.
As for Stafford, the algorithms like him to match Brees almost throw for throw. He's projected at 270 yards on 36 attempts (7.50 yards per attempt) with 2.07 touchdowns and 0.64 interceptions. That certainly doesn't seem to indicate the Saints' defense is on the verge of reversing its early-season struggles.
Can Tim Hightower Carry the Load for the Saints?
Even when the Saints were at their lowest point, you could always count on Mark Ingram as a dependable fantasy option. He had double-digit half-PPR points in every game he played this year except for one.
Given how this season has gone, you knew that happiness couldn't last.
Thankfully for the Saints and fantasy owners everywhere, Tim Hightower emerged from the crypt last week to rack up 85 yards and a touchdown on the road against a tough Tampa Bay Buccaneers rush defense. Maybe those three-plus years off were just a strategic recharge.
A quick look at the box score may stir a bit of concern for Hightower moving forward. Yeah, he had 85 rushing yards, but he needed 28 attempts to get there. If he's that dependent on volume to rack up yardage, there wouldn't be much reason to think he could maintain relevance. That, however, would be a bit misleading.
In that game, Hightower had 0.38 Rushing NEP. Because rushing is generally less efficient than passing, most running backs will end the season with negative Rushing NEP totals. Hightower was able to get enough yards when the Saints needed him, so it's not crazy to think that he could at least partially fill Ingram's void.
The other aspect of this is that New Orleans appears to just be a good rushing team. They are 10th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play, while their opponent ranks 21st on the defensive side. That's -- again -- better than the Lions were earlier in the year, but it's not as if they've magically become lights out.
The projections are understandably a bit wary about Hightower, given the limited sample size of success. He's slated to rush for 56 yards with 0.50 touchdowns to go with 18 yards through the air. It may not be Ingram-esque production, but Hightower figures to continue to be respectable down the stretch.
Does Detroit Pull Off the Victory?
This is projected to be a tight one with the Saints favored by only 2.5 points. The algorithms appear to have this game being just as close.
Let's turn to that game projections page for a quick look at the most similar games from history. One of the top matches (at 87.51 percent similarity) came in 2010 between the Dallas Cowboys (representing New Orleans) and Washington (representing Detroit). That one also featured a pair of non-playoff teams in Week 15, and there were plenty of points to go around.
Dallas built up a 27-7 lead early in the third quarter, making it look as if they could just ice things off. Then Washington came roaring back, tying the game at 30 apiece with 7:37 left. The two teams traded punts before Dallas notched a go-ahead, game-winning field goal with 50 seconds on the clock. This would seem to hint at a close victory for the Saints.
There is, perhaps, a larger takeaway here. Even though Washington fell down big, they were able to storm back against a Dallas defense that finished that year 27th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. If Rex Grossman could do it then, I have no reason to believe Stafford couldn't do it Monday night.
The reverse is also true, given the Saints' effectiveness at home and the Lions' defensive inefficiency. There may be no deficit that is insurmountable in this one, meaning both teams are going to need to keep adding points. That could make for a mighty interesting little bout.
Additionally, given what these offenses can do, turnovers may be even more important than normal. Washington turned the ball over three times in the game, with the first two leading to Dallas touchdowns and the third effectively ending the game. When you've got two defenses as bad as these, a wasted possession is bad enough; setting the opposition up with a short field is even worse. These defenses may not force a lot of turnovers, but the ones they do will be even more impactful.
And the Winner Is...
Similar to the previous game from history, the computers do see the Saints taking home a tight victory here. The projected final score is 24.75 to 23.48 with the Saints starting the game with 54.23 percent win odds.
That score, however, would mean a victory against the spread for Detroit. This is a virtual dead heat with the algorithms seeing Detroit beating the spread 50.05 percent of the time.
Finally, the computers don't quite see this game being as high-scoring as Vegas does. They put the game hitting the under 59.87 percent of the time.